Saturday, January 12, 2008

How many types of people? (Or, delusions of an amateur philosopher)

Back when I was in college, a friend and I were walking past an unattended custodian's cart. My friend grabbed a roll of toilet paper and kept walking. Apparently, he was out of tissues (at least that's what I hope was his motivation). "You really oughtn't to do that," I said. "By that act you are sanctioning a world where anyone can take any toilet paper roll they please, and do you really want to live in such a world?" I was rather pleased with discovering a profound new moral law, before realizing a few months later that Kant's categorical imperative was a few centuries old.

A few months after that I thought that I hatched an even more profound discovery. I sketched out a four-page paper with the thesis that humans would be psychologically healthier if they would, in addition to speaking an everyday language necessary to conduct business, also speak a secondary language of surrealistic insignificance. In other words, instead of saying "hello" to others, we would speak in zen koans. Sample conversation upon encountering an acquaintance:

"The hawk soars at midnight."

"Yes, but does his beak revert to a secondary peak?"

"Aye, my child. The chimney is warm."

It was with some disappointment that I realized several years later that my theory was simply watered down psychoanalytic French post-structuralism. Ah well, at least I covered several hundred years of philosophic progression in a few months. How odd that my next great discovery would be a regression back to Aristotle. I set about to categorize all humanity. I decided for the sake of pithiness that all my categories must be alliterative, and since pithy starts with "p," what better letter to use? I decided that everyone on Earth is either a proletarian, a politician, a poet, or a philosopher. I extended the definition of proletarian beyond simply blue-collar worker, and assigned the definition to anyone content to accept life on its own terms, without a strong desire to either question or change anything. Politicians I decided were those who didn't question, but tried to change things anyway. Poets were those who asked questions but didn't try to change anything, and philosophers both questioned things and tried to change the world around them.

I still think this was rather clever of me, but even aside from the fact that "philosopher" isn't technically alliterative with the rest, it is more an exercise in cleverness than an exercise in finding truth (I suppose this would make me a poet). Still, I think this still puts me ahead of bad philosophers, such as Aristotle, who using the ideas of Hippocrates (famous for writing oaths), posited that all humans fall into one of four personality types. This idea has proved remarkably resilient (certainly more so than many of Aristotle's other ideas), as we have a whole slew of modern day variations, which simply use colors, shapes, animals, or business terms as substitutes for the original Greek designations.

Aside from this prevailing theory, though, there is a tremendous Aristotelian impulse to categorize people. A google search on the term "types of people" yields 1.23 million hits. These range from the absurd (28 types of people you meet in the men's room), to the hilarious (there are 10 types of people in the world-those who understand binary and those who don't), to the semi-profound (there are two types of people-those who enter a room and say 'here I am' and those who enter a room and say 'there you are').

Still, through it all, I can't help but think of an exchange in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Jem tells Scout there are four kinds of folks: "the ordinary kind like us and our neighbors, the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes." After thinking about it for awhile, Scout says "Naw, Jem, I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks." For a seven-year-old, she makes a pretty good philosopher.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your ideas are of significance indeed, but the thought of, "folks" is a simpleton way of looking at our cultural differences. As a philosopher myself, we do indeed need a different way to look at the mockingbird. You have just touched the tip of the iceberg my friend.

10:52 AM  
Blogger MarkL said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed you ability to create a concrete "abstraction".

"By that act you are sanctioning a world where anyone can take any toilet paper roll they please, and do you really want to live in such a world?"
Yes. I would rather be in a world like that. Where material matters are less significant. The energy of economy would be based on:

give support => get support (vice-versa).

Not based on our unsustainable economy of:

get products=> make products (vice-versa)

(don't have my note pad around to finish my rebuttal)..
Check out "Island" by Huxley and
any book by Daniel Quinn to see the answers..

9:57 PM  

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